The Chicago Park District halted efforts to relocate a track and field in Jackson Park hours before a September 17 public meeting on the ongoing environmental review of the Obama Presidential Center (OPC). The Chicago Tribune reported in August that the Chicago Park District had begun to cut down trees and install fences in preparation for the relocation, with plans to build a new track and field further south in order to create space for the proposed Obama Presidential Center. Attendees at the public meeting, held at the South Shore Cultural Center, were not notified of the decision. Intended for use by student-athletes from Hyde Park Academy High School, the new eight-lane, 400-meter track and turf field will be partially funded by a $3.5-million donation to the Chicago Park District from the Obama Foundation, which announced the award after questions arose regarding the displacement of practice space during the construction of the OPC. The decision to stop the work came after the City of Chicago met with the National Park Service (NPS) and the Federal Highway Administration, the lead federal agency for the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review. A complex matrix of federal funding and compliance requirements related to Jackson Park’s listing on the National Register of Historic Places requires agencies to consider the impacts the project might have on the park. NEPA requires that connected actions are considered as a part of a consultation, with the funding and relocation of the track and field by the Obama Foundation likely to be considered a connected action, as the construction of the OPC would not be able to proceed without its removal. "Jackson Park Watch is very pleased that there is a pause in this rush to make these major and very ill-conceived changes,” Margaret Schmidt, co-president of Jackson Park Watch, said in a statement. “We hope that with NPS, a new player in the very important federal review processes, a result that is better for the Park can be devised." The Chicago Park District confirmed in a statement that construction will not continue until a dialogue with federal agencies confirms that work is appropriate. While construction of the Obama Presidential Center was approved by the city council in May, the Obama Foundation has stated that they will not break ground on the center until 2019. Concerns regarding the track and field join a number of others brought up by activists, including the impact the OPC will have on Jackson Park as an archaeological site and the OPC's economic effects, as the Obama Foundation refuses to sign a Community Benefits Agreement, and the OPC’s questionable ability to acquire public land, the subject of a federal lawsuit by Protect our Parks.
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Up to 40 trees, some of them decades old, were reportedly cut down in Chicago’s historic Jackson Park on August 6 as part of construction associated with the Obama Presidential Center (OPC) campus. Despite a pending lawsuit and ongoing federal review, construction crews were reportedly spotted demolishing baseball fields in Jackson Park to make way for an OPC-funded track-and-field facility in the same spot. The new field is being constructed at a cost of $3.5 million to compensate the city and Chicago Park District for the current track and field that will be swallowed up by the 19.3-acre campus. The $500 million campus, master planned by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, has already seen its fair share of pushback from the community since its unveiling in 2016. First, a controversial parking facility was moved underground after complaints that its presence would spoil the Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux-designed landscape and the accompanying Midway Plaisance. The buildings themselves were redesigned to sit within the park better the next day. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, OPC executives had pledged not to cut down any trees until the project had passed review and they had obtained the proper permits. However, this promise appears to have only counted work on the main campus, and not associated work. As The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) points out, the new field is inextricably linked to the main project and is tied to the OPC’s construction timetable. When the Sun-Times asked about the discrepancy, Obama Foundation officials reportedly declined to confirm that the new field was part of the OPC, telling the paper that “the construction schedule put forward by the Chicago Park District ensures the new track will be ready for students and fall sports leagues.” Additionally, the federal lawsuit filed in May by preservationist group Protect Our Parks was rebuked by lawyers from the City of Chicago and the Chicago Park District in June, who argued that as the City Council hasn’t given the project approval yet, any lawsuit was premature. The Chicago City Council won’t vote on the project until the fall, and no construction is supposed to occur until the twice-delayed federal review concludes. According to the Chicago Tribune, the groundbreaking for the campus has been pushed to 2019. No update has been given on whether this will change the projected 2021 opening date. On August 8, TCLF delivered a letter with their concerns to the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, a federal advisory body on historic preservation. The felling of the trees in a park listed in the National Register of Historic Places and what the Foundation feels is a lack of due diligence by the City of Chicago to look into the site’s archeological significance were addressed. AN will follow this story up as more news about the Center breaks.
Obama Presidential Center breezes through planning and zoning hurdles, but continues to kindle community concern
The Obama Presidential Center (OPC) passed two substantial hurdles this month as the Chicago Planning Commission and Zoning Committees both voted in overwhelming support of the development. Amidst a seven-hour hearing of public comment coming from a variety of Chicago voices, broad strokes of the plan were given a “yay” vote from 15 of the 22 planning commission members on May 17. The Chicago City Council signed off on the $500 million project on May 22, passing various zoning approvals. The stage is now set for the construction of a 235-foot-tall building with cultural exhibit and office space, two additional cultural buildings, and an athletic and community center. The Planning Commission vote also includes a 450-car underground parking garage and clears the way for the Obama Foundation (OF) to close public right-of-ways. While these votes were expected to breeze through both the Planning Commission and Zoning Committees, departments within the City of Chicago had already created conditions that allow obstacles to be easily bypassed, from the rerouting and closing of streets to downplaying the effects the OPC will have on historical aspects of Jackson Park. While the agenda divided the vote into multiple components, all of the items were treated as one. Public comment during the May 17th Planning Commission meeting included statements from the Chicago History Museum, Preservation Chicago, Jackson Park Watch, The Woodlawn Organization, Chicago aldermen and tenured Chicago activists. The commission did not address the federal lawsuit filed on May 14 by Protect our Parks, Inc. that accused the Obama Foundation of an “institutional bait and switch,” claiming that the original purpose of the transfer of public park land to the OF, a non-government entity, was to house the official Obama Federal Library, to be administered by the U.S. National Records and Archives Administration. As the OPF will not house Barack Obama’s official documents, the suit claims, transfer of park land to a private entity violates the park district code. The Planning Commission also failed to address a community benefits agreement proposed by the Obama Library South Side Community Benefits Agreement Coalition (CBA), a group of organizations that includes the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, Black Youth Project 100, and Friends of the Parks. Under the ordinance proposed by the CBA, the OPC, the University of Chicago, and the city would make targeted investments within a five-mile radius, including economic development, education, employment, housing, sustainability and transportation. At a community meeting held at McCormick Place last February, Barack Obama coolly responded to the call for a CBA: "The concern I have with community benefits agreements, in this situation, is it's not inclusive enough," Obama remarked. "I would then be siding with who? What particular organizations would end up speaking for everybody in that community?” Also present at the Planning Commission meeting were OPC architects Todd Williams and Billie Tsien, who are in the process of selecting materials for each of the structures that complement neighboring buildings like the Museum of Science and Industry and the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, a building of their own design on the campus of the University of Chicago. While neither Tsien nor Williams spoke during the hearing, Williams implied during a public meeting in February that the integrity of Jackson Park has already been compromised over time. Designed by Fredrick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, Jackson Park was the site of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition and is one of Chicago’s most valuable and significant pieces of public land. An archaeological evaluation performed as a part of the project’s federal compliance uncovered artifacts and ephemera from the World’s Columbian Exposition, as well as architectural materials relating to the fair’s buildings, many of which set the course for how Chicago would look going into the 20th century. Despite the importance of these findings for Chicago, both the Illinois State Archaeological Survey and the chief archaeologist for the Illinois Department of Transportation have determined the presence of these artifacts to be insignificant. It is expected that a federal review of above-ground resources will reach a similar conclusion-that the OPC project will not have an adverse effect on the historic landscape of Jackson Park or the surrounding historic districts and buildings. At the center of the opposition is a $175 million-dollar plan to overhaul and close multiple roads within and around Jackson Park, a critical component to the Tiger Woods-designed PGA golf course slated to open in 2020, a year behind the OPC. The golf course would combine the existing Jackson Park and South Shore courses and fragment the South Shore Nature Sanctuary in favor of unobstructed views of the Chicago skyline for golfers. While the OF has not stated they are in support of the golf course proposal, many board members of the Chicago Parks Golf Alliance, an organization in support of the plan, have ties with the Obama Foundation or Barack Obama himself.
On May 7, the Obama Foundation announced a series of revisions to Tod Williams Billie Tsien’s $500 million design of The Barack Obama Presidential Center. The revisions are predominantly focused on the 20-acre complex’s masterplan and landscapes connecting facilities. The new design replaces a sunken courtyard located within the Presidential Center’s core plaza with a street level, concrete-paneled surface surrounded by soft landscaping. A children’s play area has been moved closer to Stony Island Avenue, which is seen as a more convenient location that provides sweeping views of Lake Michigan and Jackson Park’s Lagoon. Architecturally, the largest revision is to the grass-terraced and curved roof of the athletic center. According to a statement, the shape and roof of the building have been altered to be in line with the more traditional designs found throughout the campus. While renderings of the athletic center’s new design have not yet been revealed, the masterplan provides a glimpse of the facility's new rectangular layout. Additionally, the height of the athletic center has increased from 18 to 20 feet. Since announced in 2016, the Obama Presidential Center has been subject to near continual revisions, a result of direct community feedback, including some controversy surrounding its proposed parking garage, and the challenges of embedding an expansive cultural campus within a large urban center and landmarked park. The proposed changes will be submitted to the City of Chicago’s Plan Commission on May 17.
Archeologists involved with the federal review of the proposed Obama Presidential Center have unearthed artifacts from the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. The proposed presidential library is located atop the former fair grounds in Chicago's Jackson Park. The Chicago Tribune reports that the artifacts range from pieces of fair buildings such as Louis Sullivan’s Transportation Building (pictured above), to waste associated with services from the fair, including animal bones. Prestigious firms D. H. Burnham & Company and Olmsted, Vaux & Co led the design of the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition. Designed and built according to City Beautiful principles, much of the 1893 campus was comprised of temporary structures built of form worked plaster painted white to resemble limestone. While the discovery of archeological artifacts can impact the timetable of a development, especially one of this scope, the Chicago Tribune notes that officials from the Illinois Department of Transportation who oversaw the archeological dig do not believe that the cluster of artifacts are significant enough to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The archeological findings will be presented March 29 during a public hearing at the University of Chicago, which will also discuss neighboring historic properties that the Obama Presidential Library will impact. Unless state preservation officials disagree with the Illinois DOT’s findings, the Obama Foundation intends to gain planning approval in May and open the facility to the public in 2021.
Following the decision yesterday to bury the Obama Presidential Center’s controversial parking garage under the center itself, the Obama Foundation has announced major changes to the rest of the campus. The complex, which will eat up approximately 20 acres of the Olmstead and Vaux-designed Jackson Park on Chicago’s South Side, has faced scrutiny from preservationists and residents throughout the design process. When it was first unveiled, the Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects | Partners and Interactive Design Architects plan called for a squat, stone-clad museum at the heart of the center’s campus. The museum is joined by a forum and library with the three buildings ringing a central plaza, while each is connected to the other via perforated underground tunnels that let in natural light. Coming a day after the announcement that the parking garage was moving from the Midway Plaisance and into the park itself, the latest design for the center was revealed in a video from the Obama Foundation. In it, the former president and first lady present a new conceptual model of the site and discuss the changes therein. Most noticeably, the museum will now be slimmer but top out at 225 feet, as opposed to the originally planned 160 to 180 foot height. In response to criticism that the building was imposing or inappropriately dense for the site, the architects have replaced sections of the on the south and west sides and replaced them with screens containing quotes from the Obama presidency. The lettering will be made of the same lightly colored stone as the façade, although architect Tod Williams has told the Chicago Tribune that they aren’t sure whether the lettering will spell out real words, or remain abstract. A 100-foot tall section on the building’s north side has also been replaced with glass and will expose the escalator bank to natural light. Other details revealed include the creation of a 300-seat auditorium on the forum building’s north side, as well as the ongoing negotiations between the Chicago Public Library over including a branch inside of the library building. The underground parking garage will hold 450 cars across one or two levels, and be punctured with light wells to keep it airy and open. All of these changes come as the Obama Foundation is expected to file for their first construction permit today, and as the project undergoes a federal review to make sure that the Presidential Center won’t fundamentally alter the character of Jackson Park. With the move of the parking garage into Jackson Park itself, the structure will also fall under this review. While the battle over the parking garage has simmered down, preservationists are still concerned over the complex’s impact on a historically significant landscape. Martin Nesbitt, Obama Foundation chairman, said, “While the center’s buildings will occupy 3.6 acres, there will be a net gain in open space because closing Cornell Drive would create 5.16 acres of parkland,” in addition to the planted green roofs. Charles A. Birnbaum, President & CEO of The Cultural Landscape Foundation, countered with the following statement: “That’s not true. Closing Cornell Drive does not add 5.6 acres of parkland – that’s double counting. Cornell Drive, which unfortunately has been widened to six lanes, is part of the Olmsted design and is itself mapped parkland. “The people of Chicago were told they would get a presidential library administered by the National Archives, a federal facility, in exchange for the confiscation of historic parkland, listed in the National Register of Historic Places – instead, they’re getting a privately-operated entertainment campus with a 235-foot-tall tower, a recording studio, auditorium, sports facility, and other amenities.”
As first reported by the Chicago Sun Times, the Obama Foundation originally announced plans to build a parking garage in the public Midway Plaisance, just west of the proposed Obama Presidential Center designed by New York-based Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects. The plan to build the 450-car above-ground garage in the Plaisance was met with criticism from multiple community organizations, including in the form of a recent letter to the Foundation from over 100 University of Chicago professors. The new plan calls for the garage to be moved underground, beneath the Presidential Center, in Jackson Park. While this may alleviate some of the resistance to the project, it will still have to contend with a federal review regarding the changes to Jackson Park itself. Both Jackson Park and the Plaisance have been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1972. Designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, both the park and the Plaisance were the site of the 1893 Columbian Exposition. The announcement comes just two days before the Foundation is expected to file for the first construction permit for the project, and on the same day that over 100 University of Chicago professors submitted a letter of concern to the Foundation. The letter addresses a number of specific points, one being the concern over the seemingly car-centric programming and siting of the building, as well as the use of public park space. While the letter reiterates support for the center to be on the South Side, it questions whether it will “provide the promised development or economic benefits to the neighborhoods.” It goes on to read, “At a time of increasing complexity and pressure in urban life, Chicago should be dedicated to preserving our public parks as open areas for relaxation and play for all its citizens.” The letter also points out that the Presidential Center is not the Presidential Library, which is administered by a federal agency, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). The Barack Obama Presidential Library will be the first presidential library to be completely digital. Once all of the documents that are normally stored in a presidential library are digitized, the original copies will be put into a NARA storage facility. Over the past year, a series of community meetings and conversations with local organizations have been held to gauge community sentiment. While the overall mood from the city has been positive, issues like the parking, and the signing over of public land to a private organization have raised red flags with many, and will continue to through what will be the most anticipated and watched project in Chicago.
Despite comments from Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects that the forthcoming Obama Presidential Center (OPC) would consider moving a freestanding parking garage out of the Frederick Law Olmsted–designed Jackson Park in Chicago, officials have decided to keep the building on the greenway. The 450-car structure will potentially eat up five acres of parkland in addition to the 20 acres the center itself is taking. The decision to build an aboveground garage on the eastern edge of Midway Plaisance, a narrow strip of historic parkland that connects Jackson and Washington parks, has been contentious from the beginning. Although the two-story structure had always been envisioned with a green roof on top to help it blend into the surrounding park, critics charge that this fails to negate the destruction of a historically significant landscape. Olmsted and Calvert Vaux designed all three of the aforementioned parks in 1871, while Jackson Park was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972. As opposition from the local South Side community continued to mount, Tod Williams said earlier that, “We are wondering whether this parking should exist here, or whether it should be pressed further into the ground ... or whether it comes back to the site here.” But following a private meeting between the Obama Center design team, the Obama Foundation, and local community activists last night, the Foundation has announced that the garage will be staying put. Part of the Obama Center master plan calls for linking the site with the nearby Museum of Science and Industry, and the location of the garage proved too integral in that design for designers to consider moving. The walkability that an aboveground garage brings was also given as the reason why the team couldn't bury the structure. Instead, project landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh detailed a list of changes that the design team hoped would assuage outcry from concerned preservation groups. Van Valkenburgh told the Chicago Sun Times that landscaped slopes would be installed on all sides to better camouflage the building, that the plan would call for no longer staging busses on the Midway, and that the entrance to the garage would be moved to cut down on the time it took to walk to the Center. Additionally, the green roof has been made more pastoral, and plans for a basketball court and barbecue area have been tabled. “I think that the way it honors the intent of the original Olmsted plan is with a strong landscape connection between Jackson Park and the beginning of the rest of the Midway,” said Van Valkenburgh. Despite the changes, the Chicago City Council will still need to give the Obama Foundation permission to build in the Midway, while a review of the entire OPC is also underway at the federal level.
After making its way through local approvals, the Obama Presidential Center (OPC), proposed for Jackson Park on Chicago’s South Side, will now face its first round of federal review. Set to take up over 20 acres of the Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux-designed park, the future of the OPC is now in doubt after becoming entwined with the merger of the nearby Jackson and South Shore golf courses. Because the two projects would monumentally alter usage patterns in the historic park, an environmental review process has been triggered for each proposal under both the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA). Beginning this Friday, December 1st, and continuing for an unspecified length of time, the review process will open a series of meetings for the federal government and the relevant agencies to evaluate the OPC’s environmental impacts. Designed by New York-based Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects and Chicago-based Interactive Design Architects, the current plan for the OPC divides 200,000 square feet across a museum, forum, and library all arranged around a central plaza. Controversially, a recently-announced above-ground parking structure will eat up another five acres of green space. Charles Birnbaum, president and CEO of The Cultural Landscape Foundation, told the Hyde Park Herald that the review would bring much-needed transparency to a process that should consider any changes to the park as parts of a whole. “All of these when taken together represent a radical change in the park that was listed on the National Register,” said Birnbaum. It remains unclear how quickly the OPC will make its way through the federal review process, or what changes the government may require. Previously, approvals were handled by the city of Chicago under Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who many felt was fast-tracking the project along. But the inclusion of federal and state-level regulators in the process is a new wrinkle. Despite the increased scrutiny, the Obama Foundation is still aiming to hit its target of submitting plans for the project before the end of the year. More information on how NEPA and NHPA will affect the Presidential Center, and what environmental considerations are being taken into account, is available here.
Barack Obama’s Obama Presidential Center, a three-building complex designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien on Chicago’s South Side, has made its intention to embrace its neighborhood very clear—specifically Jackson Park and the Midway Plaisance, the historic Frederick Law Olmsted–designed greenways that have hosted, among other things, the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, a.k.a. the “White City.” But what the Center hasn’t made as clear is that the complex’s footprint is growing, with its leaders recently proposing an aboveground parking garage that could take up about five acres of the Midway. The library’s concession for eating into this space is a green roof, which opponents claim should not be considered green space at all. Original plans for the center, released in May, did not include any building on the Midway. The land is owned by the city’s Department of Transportation, and the move would need to be approved by the Chicago City Council. “To say it’s ok to carve up a work of art and replace it with something else is ridiculous,” said Charles Birnbaum, president and CEO of the Cultural Landscape Foundation. “The issue is not whether a green roof is considered green space; what’s disconcerting is the Obama Center’s insistence that they need more parkland.” When completed, the Obama Center—whose footprint currently measures roughly 20 acres—will consist of a tall, stone-clad, geometric presidential museum, a green-roofed library, and a forum for events, all clustered around a broad plaza. The greenery is meant to blend with the existing park, but will not, say critics, make up for the amount of space it is taking from the famed parks. A spokesperson for the Obama Foundation told AN: “The parking facility on the Midway will revitalize underutilized section of the Midway Plaisance. The facility will be covered and surrounded by a new park that will be open to the public.” The Chicago Park District has called three meetings for citizens to weigh in on the planned changes, particularly to Jackson Park and the Midway. “We thought a comprehensive planning process was in order,” Friends of the Parks Executive Director Juanita Irizarry told CBS Chicago. “Now it’s happening so quickly that we don’t believe it possibly can be a real, transparent process.”
As part of a community meeting in Michelle Obama’s home neighborhood of South Shore, the former president and first lady unveiled the first images and a conceptual model for the future Obama Presidential Center. Described at the meeting as “more than a building or museum,” the center will be a “working center for citizenship.” Classrooms, labs and outdoor spaces will be used for programming focused on giving visitors “real tools to create change in their own communities.” A video of the design can be seen below. Located in Jackson Park, on Chicago’s South Side, the center is being designed by New York-based Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects | Partners and Chicago studio Interactive Design Architects. As part of the Olmsted-designed park, the complex will include 200,000 square feet of space divided into three structures—a museum, forum, and library. The three structures will great a central public plaza, while landscaping will connect the green roofs of two of the buildings to the existing park. The tallest of the buildings will be the museum portion of the center, will hold exhibitions and public space, while the forum and library will be public resources to further the civic goals of the center. “The design approach for the center is guided by the goal of creating a true community asset that seeks to inspire and empower the public to take on the greatest challenges of our time," the architects said at the meeting. "The Obamas were clear that they wanted the Center to seamlessly integrate into the Park and the community, and include diverse public spaces. Our hope is that this design for the Center interspersed with Jackson Park honors the legacy of Olmsted and Vaux and unlocks potential and opportunity for Jackson Park, the South Side, and the City of Chicago." Mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel also commented: "I am thrilled to join President Obama and Mrs. Obama as we outline the vision for both the Obama Presidential Center and Jackson Park as a whole," he said. "This vision will enhance the historic landscape of Jackson Park as originally envisioned by Frederick Olmsted, and we all look forward to engaging with residents as we begin the community process to turn this vision into reality in a way that maximizes economic development and opportunity in Woodlawn, South Shore and Washington Park.”
In a video address, former President Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama asked for input on the forthcoming Obama Presidential Center, the Presidential Library to be built on the South Side of Chicago. The directs the public to www.obama.org to give input on what it might want from the new institution. “The center will be based on the south side of Chicago, but it will have a projects all over the city, the country, and the world,” explained the former President. ”More than a library or a museum, it will be a living working center for citizenship. That’s why we want to hear from you. Tell us what you want this project to be. Tell us what’s on your mind.” “Tell us about the young leaders, companies, and organizations that inspire you,” added the former First Lady. “This will be your presidential center as much as it will be ours.” Planned to be built in Jackson Park, on Chicago’s South side, the Obama Presidential Center will be designed by New York-Based Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects | Partners (TWBTA). No renderings or design details have yet to be released, and the exact location within the park has not been announced. TWBTA was chosen first from 150 firms, then a short list of seven, which included Adjaye Associates, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Snøhetta, SHoP Architects, Renzo Piano Building Workshop, and the one local office John Ronan Architects.